What to Do When a Colleague Acts Unethically
Q: One of my law partners had an intern pretend to be him and take an ethics course the partner needed to satisfy his continuing legal education requirement. When I learned about it, I challenged his actions. He pushed back, claiming he’d created a win-win situation: The intern benefited by taking the course, and the company benefited by his signing a new client while the intern stood in for him. He accused me of making a big deal over nothing. Am I?
A: This problem is bigger than lying; it underscores what happens when arrogance takes over a leader’s thought process. It can be hard to argue with anyone who has rationalized his self-interest and unethical behavior into a benefit to others. Challenge him on something he has decided is the right way to act, and he’s sure to throw up a wall of righteous indignation.
Your partner’s moral compass is jammed. He poses a hazard to your business because he can’t think through unintended consequences of actions that could hurt others or the firm. In this case, he involved an intern in the fraud, likely trapping the younger person into compliance because of the partner’s position. While the partner may have assumed it was a matter between the two of them, he has no idea how far the story will travel and whether there will be personal or professional repercussions.
Certifying to any organization involved with licensing or credentialing that you met a requirement when you didn’t demonstrates that you aren’t honest or trustworthy. This creates a handicap to the partner’s professional reputation as well as to that of your firm. The irony of it being an ethics course underscores to employees (who will have heard about it through the grapevine) that the company believes unethical shortcuts are OK. And, let’s face it, the intern likely learned more from the partner’s behavior in this debacle than from the course.
Your partner has set a low bar by forcing employees to make a choice between lying or being honest, and whether they should promote self-interest over the company’s interests. Creating the pretext that his time was better spent signing a new client than taking the course is a sign of ego run amok.
So, what now? Talk to your other partners about the problem, what needs to happen for the good of the firm and a plan of action. Then, meet with the partner who had no time for ethics and be clear about the harm and potential harm he set in motion for the intern, for employees’ attitudes about ethical standards and for the reputation of the firm and its partners, as well as himself. Also be clear about the steps necessary to try to repair the damage.
Your partner needs to understand the importance of apologizing to the intern for the position he put him or her in. He would also be well advised to sign up for another ethics course as soon as possible and actually take it. This sends a message to employees that when judgment blunders happen, good-faith efforts can correct mistakes—and, most important, that even partners are expected to adhere to ethical behavior as a standard your company expects of everyone.
Going forward, talk with your partners about how you can support one another in setting high standards in your own conduct to build and protect the firm’s reputation. Arrogance is a dangerous default; it raises self-importance to a level where people believe the rules don’t apply to them because their time is more valuable than others’. Partners can help each other stay real and lead by example.